How sports brands can use YouTube to reconnect with Gen Z

In this post – which is an extended version of an article that originally appeared exclusively on WARC on 23 March – We Are Social Sport’s Daniel Parker shows that YouTube is currently being undervalued by brands looking to connect with Gen Z.

A typical problem that sports brands are facing right now is how to connect to and engage with a Gen Z audience on social media. This is an audience who consume sports culture in a very different way to the generations who came before them. An audience who view niche behaviour on social media as the key to authenticity, who see the middle ground as scorched earth. Therefore, it can be hard to figure out the right platforms to reach Gen Z on, and also how to reach them on that chosen platform.

As our 2023 Think Forward: Sports Edition report points out, you cannot capture or sustain the attention of Gen Z with tired content that doesn’t speak to them or have a clear point of view. To this audience, calling someone ‘mid’ is seen as an insult while, conversely, ‘goblin mode’ or ‘corecore’ continue to gain in popularity. Applying this through a sporting lens, specifically basketball, we’ve seen Kevin Durant embody goblin mode on Twitter, and Serge Ibaka showcase the unexpected edges of his personality via a cooking show on YouTube.

Similarly, when it comes to search, Gen Z suffers from ‘algorithmic anxiety’ – a recently coined term that describes the fear that traditional online recommendation algorithms are dulling individual tastes. This audience doesn’t want to be fed FYP-style results when they look for highlights packages; they want to be challenged and fed new perspectives that push at the edges of the sports they’re passionate about. This is why creators like Joel Mensah and Shepmates are spearheading the vanguard for ‘alternative’ sports commentary.

We’re already several years beyond the tipping point of a younger generation using social for search instead of search engines. That’s nothing new, and that audience behaviour will become more commonplace across platforms like YouTube, Twitter and TikTok in 2023. Increasingly, we’re seeing an emerging trend of ‘textured discovery’ as a younger generation want to search by ‘feeling’ rather than traditional search terms, explaining the rise in popularity of ‘No Context’-style accounts or channels like ‘Football Pics That Go Hard’. 

The mistake we’re seeing brands make is identifying emerging trends like these and going after TikTok alone to reach Gen Z. TikTok will certainly help brands close the gap between their core message and their target audience, but if brands chase the loud hype of TikTok over the quiet heft of YouTube, they risk missing out on a deeper connection with the demographic who have reawakened a sleeping giant. 

YouTube is where Gen Z are

YouTube has quietly become the go-to place for Gen Z in recent years. Not only are 88% of American Gen Zers on YouTube, they are also spending over 23 hours per month there. 

31% of Gen Z look for sports news on YouTube, more than any other social platform, reflecting YouTube’s shifting role for a younger audience who are using it as a video-first search engine. This is the only age bracket for whom YouTube wins over Google for search. 

It’s where the eyeballs are – but much more than that, it’s where brands can win when it comes to cultural resonance. YouTube’s fandom culture is less about self-branding and more about being aligned with Gen Z’s collaborative and multisensory approach to discovering content that pushes at the niche fringes of popular topics (e.g. Tom Daley knitting at the Olympics). This means brands can forge deeper connections that play directly into the niche, sport subjects a Gen Z audience voraciously consumes.  

One of the many reasons why Gen Z are seen as a difficult demographic to reach – and therefore represent a shared problem many brands face – is because of their ‘fluid identity’. They have dropped the singular, static ‘personal brand’ for a modular identity on social platforms and this is reflected in how they show up on a platform like YouTube. In 2022’s YouTube Report, 55% of Gen Z agreed that they would happily watch content that no-one else they know is personally interested in. If that content resonates with them, they don’t care if it doesn’t resonate with the perceived cultural zeitgeist. Instead, the community and culture they are a part of is rooted in the platform.

Gen Z favour YouTube above all other platforms because they can find and become part of fandoms and communities that speak to their niche interests. There are two ways in which sports brands can hook in an audience and turn them into an engaged community: firstly, being creator-led; secondly, creating flexible formats that sustain interest.

Why creators are king in sport 

Tapping into the role of creators is a clear way in which sports brands can improve their YouTube presence. Only 1% of 18-24 year olds consume branded content on YouTube, compared to 81% choosing to spend time with influencer-led or creator-led content. This behaviour is not going to change overnight, so sports brands should look to amplify their message through creators as authentic megaphones, or risk being ignored.

One brand who has done this incredibly well for many years is Pro:Direct Soccer with Chunkz and Filly. They realised that their YouTube audience don’t care what Pro:Direct as a brand has to say, but do care about Chunkz and Filly. Building up a community over several years of fans’ loyal to the two host creators has seen the brand’s subscriptions skyrocket, and their creator-led content consistently beat a million views. 

The impact of creator-first content is also shaping the way communities are being built on the platform. We’re seeing some lifestyle influencers who have a passion for gaming, like Alhan, creating a subscription on YouTube, or Vans using the platform’s collaborative benefits to stream a customs session with their audience. Then there’s HauteLeMode, reinventing fashion reviews as video essays and building a new type of fashion community from the ground up.

Building a purpose-built format 

Handing a brand’s reputation to creators can be scary. This is why the second way in which brands can connect more with Gen Z is equally important: building up a format that is purpose-built for YouTube, native to a Gen Z audience, and can flex across editorial moments.

There’s an abundance of premium football content on YouTube from the likes of Baller Talk and On The Judy, for example – Black YouTubers who are giving fans a deeper, unfiltered insight into the lives of their idols by creating instantly recognisable content formats that foster a more inclusive environment. 

When it comes to brands or sporting institutions getting formats right on YouTube, Arsenal FC jump out as a shining example. Colney Carpool has become a popular content franchise on the club’s YouTube channel this season as it lets host Frimmy get loose – revealing a side to players that fans want to see. Colney Carpool’s success reinforces the power of the niche, playing directly into Gen Z’s fluid identity online.

Outside of football, other creators and athletes are heading down similar paths on YouTube.  For instance, LeBron James’ ‘The Shop’ garners millions of views each episode, featuring stars from across the sport and entertainment landscape like Naomi Osaka, Jay-Z and Megan Rapinoe. The show is not set in a stadium or studio but in a barbershop, where LeBron and his business partner Maverick Carter invite guests to speak about issues ranging from activism to their journeys of success or what motivates them. It’s a simple format, fuelled by the voices Gen Z wants to hear from.

The growing power of Shorts 

Linked to format is how brands can hack into YouTube’s long and short-form functionality – for instance, leaning into the growing power of YouTube Shorts and the rise in mobile content consumption. It’s yet another way in which YouTube is stealing eyeballs and hijacking the downtime of a highly targeted demographic from rival platforms like TikTok.

Last month, YouTube Shorts surpassed 50 billion daily views, and 59% of Gen Z admitted they discover long-form content on the platform through short-form content. Shorts acts as a pathway to discovery, hooking an audience in before longer-form content forges a deeper connection. There are a number of sports brands already utilising Shorts well, whether that’s Footasylum editorialising lifestyler conversation in a distinctive way, or Gymshark driving their community back to longer-form content. Both examples show the benefits of brands approaching specialist sporting topics in format-first ways which enhance their credibility on the platform.

Time for creative content that connects

Ultimately, from ignoring Shorts to an absence of creator-led formats, YouTube is being overlooked and undervalued by too many sports brands. The audience that so many are desperate to reach are there, waiting for brands to show up in a way that matches their behaviour and fluid identity on the platform.

YouTube offers far more than just long-form content; it’s the starting point for creative content that connects to a Gen Z audience with cultural clout.

To find out more about We Are Social’s Think Forward: Sports Edition report, click here.